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From the NS archive: Dublin bears silent witness to the civil war

8 July 1922: Bullets fly from the guns of the IRA and Free State Soldiers, but spectators resist taking sides. 

This month in 1922, civil war broke out in Ireland. The combatants took different views of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed the previous year. The accord brought an end to the Irish War of Independence by establishing the Irish Free State, a self-governing entity that remained within the “community of nations known as the British Empire”. The IRA thought this agreement was a betrayal of Republicanism and took to the streets where they were opposed by Free State soldiers. This account of the fighting in Dublin is shot through with dark humour as bystanders watched the fighting with curiosity and often got in the way of the action.

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Dubliners are no more anxious than anyone else to stop bullets. But they are philosophers enough to argue that, since in a civil war waged by snipers in the streets of a populous city the chance of stopping bullets is much the same wherever one happens to be, it would be absurd to set the risk of reducing by a little one’s margin of safety against the satisfaction of seeing what is to be seen.

Persistent crowds not only hover about the fringes of the danger areas, but edge into them at every opportunity, careless alike of stray bullets and of warning shots fired over theirheads. When on Sunday a sniper’s post in Harcourt Terrace held by irregulars was rushed under cover of a machine-gun barrage, a mob of sightseers followed practically on the heels of the stormers in the hope of picking up souvenirs. During the weekend fighting, girls in white frocks were selling flags for a hospital in streets over which bullets were humming, and I saw a couple of amateurs with pocket kodaks risk their lives to get a snapshot of an armoured car coming into action against the rebel headquarters in the Gresham Hotel.

Both sets of combatants have shown the most amiable consideration for spectators. Instead of resenting their intrusion, they seemed rather to welcome their presence, provided they did not thrust themselves too recklessly into the line of fire. Even when they did, rival snipers would often suspend their duels until the incautious adventurers managed to dash back to safety. As in 1916, civilians so far have supplied the majority of the casualties, but this is due in a large measure to the fact that they remain in the open while the fighters keep snugly under cover.

Yet for all the risks that are run there is singularly little to see. The bombardment of the Four Courts, which I did not see, may have been dramatic; the siege of the rebel positions in O’Connell Street, which I did, certainly was not. From the corner of Emend Quay at the southern end of the street, it was like watching an empty stage, where the performers, instead of appearing before the footlights, voted themselves to making an infernal din behind the wings.

The stage illusion was heightened by the flood of summer sunlight and the glimmer of green leaves beyond Nelson’s Pillar – I had never consciously noticed trees in O’Connell Street before – and rising above them on the slope of the hill the serene and mellow fronts of old Georgian houses, each of which might have been the abode of one of Jane Austen’s families. Down to the flocks of fat pigeons that pecked on the roadway at the base of Nelson’s Pillar, and rose lazily in a grey cloud during unusually fierce bursts of firing, it was a setting for a comedy of delicate artifice. Though one knew it was tragedy, not comedy, that was afoot, there were no visible signs of the tragedy except the Red Cross flags at the casualty stations on either side of the empty street.

Occasionally, when rifle and machine-gun fire blended into a deafening roar, puffs of dust would float from the walls or flakes of plaster fly out and settle on the footpaths. Once a woman, hatless, in a navy blue jacket and skirt, appeared from nowhere in the No Man’s Land between the rival forces. She ran blindly in half circles waving her arms, until a Red Cross worker rushing out from a side-street dragged her into shelter. At long intervals an armoured car would circle round Nelson’s Pillar and sweep across the front of the rebel positions. One expected always a devastating outburst, but during the hours I watched it never drew more than a few snap-shots, and having completed its tour would return with an air reminiscent a little of a dog that, having been sent into the water after a stick, has failed to retrieve it.

The main body of irregulars showed few signs of life, but some of their snipers, working their way across the roofs towards the Liffey, provided those of us who had clustered on O’Connell Bridge with the only real thrill of the afternoon. These men were firing at the National troops at The Ballast Office on the southern side of the bridge. Though shots were glancing off the upper storey a treble row of spectators lined the front of the building with the garrison banging away vigorously over their heads.

I was wondering how long it would take the sightseers to realise their position, when suddenly four Free State soldiers doubled out in front of them. One stood upright on the pavement with his rifle raised as if for a feu de joie, another knelt on one knee in the roadway, the others crouched on either side of the pillar-box at the corner, spick and span in its new coat of green paint which under the Free State has replaced the British red. The four rifles spoke together, jets of brownish smoke eddying from the muzzles as the men emptied their magazines in desperate haste against the opposite roofs.

It was war, or rather it should have been war. But mixed up with the soldiers in their green uniforms was a woman with a brown paper parcel of groceries in one hand, tugging a child obviously reluctant to go, and behind the marksmen’s heels two tattered boys jostled and squabbled as they grabbed up the spent cartridges. One felt that any self-respecting cinema producer who knew what the dignity of war demanded would have cut out the scene, and insisted on beginning all over again.

The spectators were as well worth studying as the battle. And not the least curious fact was that they were spectators and nothing else. The only comment that showed a bias in favour of one side or the other was that of an elderly woman in a shawl who, when the rumour ran round after a longer lull than usual that de Valera and all the rebel leaders were lying dead in the Gresham Hotel, remarked scornfully, “Dead! He’ll take damned good care to let others do the dying.”

Everybody else, whatever their sympathies may have been, resolutely refused to disclose them. They watched the struggle with a cool detachment that would have been rare anywhere, and was to me unprecedented in Ireland, while as one of the characters in the Experiences of an Irish R.M. says, “Indeed, if it was only two cocks ye seen fightin’ on the road, yer heart’d take part with one of them.”

Possibly everybody’s heart did take part, but, if so, they kept an excellent guard on their tongues, and conversation, of which, there was plenty, was limited to such safe topics as whether Irregulars or Regulars occupied certain building or whether the white flag that drooped from one of the houses held by the Republicans was a sign of surrender or merely marked a Red Cross station. I am pretty certain, however, that the crowd round me included few Republicans, for the simple reason that every statement made implied that the Free Staters were winning all along the line, and that unconditional surrender could not be long delayed.

Another strange feature of the war is that bulletins play almost as important a part as bullets. Dead walls and tramway standards are plastered with rival proclamations and appeals. I saw Irregulars coming out revolver in hand from their posts to buy copies of An t’Oglach, the official broadsheet of the National Army; in the heart of the Free State position girl enthusiasts were distributing the Republican War News, each issue of which appears in a different colour, blood-red, green, yellow or white.

Whereas there is surprisingly little rancour amongst the actual combatants, the temper of the propagandists is steadily rising. So far the worst taunts of the Free Staters have been about the bloodless surrenders of opponents who proclaimed their intention of fighting to the death, a questionable piece of tactics in view of the fact that the one thing that could weaken the Government would be a fresh batch of Republican martyrs.

Mr De Valera’s pen-men are not deterred by any scruples about truth, and their propaganda displays a contempt for the intelligence of the average Irishman which could scarcely be matched by the most venomous Tory Die-hard. The charge that the National troops are “British soldiers dressed in green” whose operations are planned and directed by General Macgrady in person, is merely laughable. But when so-called idealists sink to the detestable work of endeavouring to stir up sectarian passion by announcing that the towers of Protestant churches have been turned into sniping posts in order to facilitate the killing of irregulars, one can measure the depths to which the Republican cause has sunk.

Fortunately, this insensate fanaticism defeats its own purpose. The doctrinaire Republicans, as an old Fenian said the other day, murdered the Republic in the Dail debates, and are now burying the corpse under the ruins of the Four Courts and O’Connell Street. Their sole chance of success, a feeble chance I admit, was to create disaffection in the ranks of the Government forces. With incredible blindness to realities, they sought to produce a split by denouncing the men to whom they were supposed to be appealing as traitors whose outrages rivalled the worst excesses of the Black-and-Tans.

The inevitable result has been to stiffen the backbone of the soldiers, and create for the first time in a real sense a Free State Army. Nor have the inventions of Mr De Valera’s propagandists heartened their own side. In spite of ruthless conscription, backed by threats of shooting, the response to the mobilisation order was poor, and hundreds of those who came in took the first safe opportunity of returning to their homes.

Each day of the fighting has witnessed a steady decrease in the rebel strength, not by death, but by desertion, and the probability is that when the final surrender takes place only a small handful of those who originally answered the call will remain to lay down their arms.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)